Tuesday Jolt: WSDOT Secretary Says "Small Possibility" Tunnel Won't Be Built

On KIRO's Dori Monson Show, state transportation secretary Lynn Peterson says there's a "small possibility" that the downtown tunnel will never be built.

By Erica C. Barnett April 29, 2014

Afternoon Jolt

Today's Jolt

No official winner or loser today—though maybe if this actually comes to pass, People's Waterfront Coalition visionary Cary Moon will be the all-time winner?

For now: Just a minor earthquake.

On conservative host Dori Monson's show on KIRO radio earlier today, state transportation secretary Lynn Peterson sounded this wakeup call: She acknowledged, surprisingly candidly, that there is a "small possibility" that the deep-bore tunnel will never get built. The only scenario in which that might happen, she added, is if the contractor, Seattle Tunnel Partners, and WSDOT discover that "the machine is not going to actually be fixable." 

"I would say it's a small possibility, but we want to make sure that everyone understands that it's a possibility."

The tunnel-boring machine, known as Bertha, has been stuck underground since last December, when it started to overheat due to damage to seals that protect the bearing that helps turn the machine's massive cutterhead, and possibly to the bearing itself. STP is digging a concrete-piling-lined pit in front of the machine, which will eventually tunnel its way through the pilings, giving workers at the surface access to the cutterhead. STP will then remove the cutterhead and repair whatever needs to be repaired. (Since they don't currently have access to the machine, which is underground, they don't know the extent of the damage.) 

Asked whether she could say with 100 percent certainty that the tunnel project would be completed, Peterson told Monson, "You know what? No. We’re going to remain skeptical until we get more information because we still have incomplete information from our contractor."

Peterson stuck to the WSDOT line that the contractor would be on the hook for any extra costs associated with the repairs and delay—which she characterized as "change orders," not overruns—including the extra $125 million the contractors have said the delay will cost. WSDOT formally refused STP's request that the state pick up that tab.

"We’re going to remain skeptical until we get more information because we still have incomplete information from our contractor."—Lynn Peterson

But she also acknowledged there could be overruns, and said the state, not the city, would have to pay for them. "I have actually never said without a doubt, on this show or anywhere else, that there will never be cost overruns because I can't guarantee that," Peterson said. But, she added, "The only case where the taxpayers would be paying for a cost overrun is if we go through our contingency money and we have not done that yet." 

Before construction got underway, the state reduced the contingency fund from 24 percent of the total project to 15 percent; it now stands at around $170 million.

WSDOT spokeswoman Laura Newborn did not return calls for comment. 



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